Singing her own melody

Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan

By Ellen Johnson

Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

If you've never heard of the modern jazz singer Sheila Jordan it's understandable. 50 years ago jazz artists were on CBS; now they're on PBS. Further, every major record label featured a stable of jazz-influenced vocalist ranging from Lorez Alexandria to Nancy Wilson. Today vocal jazz is primarily the domain of independent labels like Blue Note, Concord Jazz, High Note, and Savoy Jazz. By the time Jordan debuted with 1962's classic album Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note) jazz was morphing from pop music to art music.  Unlike the modern jazz vocal pioneers who preceded her, notably Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, Jordan has always been situated firmly in the jazz milieu. There are no embarrassing novelty singles (or “singles” of any kind) in her discography. There is no schizophrenic discography of LPs split between lush romantic ballads aimed at a pop audience to contrast with sizzling improvisational records targeting the hip jazz audience.

   Jazz Child   Copyright 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. © Cover Photo by Brian McMillen

 Jazz Child Copyright 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. © Cover Photo by Brian McMillen

  The conceptual possibilities of albums and the declining market for singles from pre-rock singers actually benefited Jordan artistically. Though jazz critics commonly lament the declining commercial role of jazz in the mainstream rock era commercial market, they sometimes forget to mention that modern jazz vocal performances were never really popular. Vaughan's classic self-titled 1954 album with trumpeter Clifford Brown did not get her on the charts; her lovely string laden albums of Gershwin tunes and a collection of songs from Broadway was her commercial bread and butter. Never mind that great jazz oriented pop singers like Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra, were never improvisers steeped in modern jazz, even when they worked with jazz arrangers and musicians.

Modern vocal jazz is specialized music by definition. Though many performers within this field, such as Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks and Anita O'Day, are highly entertaining and accessible their art requires a high level of skill, discipline, and creativity that can appear deceptively simple. As a leader and co-leader Jordan has recorded albums almost exclusively with jazz musicians in jazz arrangements for independent labels like Steeple Chase, ECM, Muse Records and High Note. Deeply inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker she is both a quintessential modern jazz vocalist artistically and truly independent commercially.

These observations about Jordan are just a few of those affirmed in the excellent new biography Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan by author Ellen Johnson. As a performer and educator herself Johnson conveys a clear understanding of modern jazz artistically and historically. She developed a professional relationship with Jordan that blossomed into a friendship. This access gives her a unique window into Jordan's world--one populated by unreliable, troubled family members, gifted modern jazz pioneers, abusive male partners, admiring instrumental and vocal musicians, grateful students mentored by Jordan's teaching, and a community of friends including her daughter Tracey.

Though Jordan has shared aspects of her life in various articles and profiles (including a 1995 documentary Sheila Jordan: In the Voice of a Woman by Cade Bursell), Jazz Child is the most thorough synthesis of information on Jordan's life and career. Johnson interviewed Jordan from 2008-14 as well as 35 fellow musicians and acquaintances over the same period. She complements these firsthand observations with a range of record and concert reviews, and quotations from articles, plus she includes a thorough discography, videography, some of Jordan's lyrics and sheet music, and a bibliography.

Some of the more consistent themes that emerge about Jordan from these conversations are the profound impact of Parker's playing and his personal influence on Jordan's spirituality and musicality; her passion for social justice and equality; her pioneering role in the voice and bass duo format; her pervasive impact as a mentor and educator of vocalists; and a kindness and generosity that has made her a highly beloved musical partner, friend, teacher, and parent. The more you learn about her from anecdotes, concert reviews, and interviews the more you love and respect her. Hers is a story that needed to be told and kudos goes to Johnson for her warm, accessible prose. As modern jazz pioneers like Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Annie Ross, and Jordan age their memories and experiences warrant serious coverage; their stories are not just interesting, but essential to understand the possibilities of post-1950s American popular music.

Johnson, a first time author, structures the book somewhat unusually. The first six chapters tell Jordan's story chronologically, followed by six chapters that delve more deeply into topics introduced previously including Jordan's admiration of “Bird,” her refinement of the voice and bass format with bassists Arild Andersen, Cameron Brown, Harvie S, and Steve Swallow, and her innovative role as one of the first musicians to teach a vocal jazz course at the collegiate level, beginning in 1978 at City College of New York. This makes the last few chapters a bit redundant since we have already gotten the essence of Jordan. But, the more in-depth stories are interesting, the 22 page picture section, featuring photos from Jordan's personal collection are invaluable, and it's touching hearing successful former Jordan students like Theo Bleckmann, Jay Clayton, and Tierney Sutton, and peers like Sonny Rollins and Steve Swallow appraise Jordan's contributions.

 The story: Jordan (born Sheila Jeanette Dawson) was born to a single working teenaged mother in Detroit in 1928. Sheila's biological father left her mother who thought it was best for Sheila to grow up with her grandparents in the small coal mining town of Summerhull, Pennsylvania located in the Allegheny Mountains. Though her grandparents were better able to provide for her needs than her mother the family was among the poorest in a poor community and Jordan was subjected to cruel ridicule from teachers and students. Sadly her grandparents' alcoholism and emotional remoteness contributed greatly to Jordan's sense of isolation and abandonment. Jordan's childhood discovery of popular music, especially tunes from Your Hit Parade which she memorized easily, gave her an expressive outlet. She took piano lessons briefly, but excelled as a singer landing various singing opportunities on amateur hour radio shows and local contests from 1938-41. One of her most poignant musical experiences was the support of her high school teacher Mr. Rusher who encouraged her to develop her musical talents.  At 14 a conflict between Jordan's mother and grandparents led her to relocate to Detroit where a vibrant modern jazz scene was already developing.

Armed with a good ear, some performing experience, and an early mentor, the underage Jordan  made her way into Detroit's thriving jazz club scene after hearing a record of Charlie Parker and his Rebopper's “Now is the Time” on a jukebox at 15. She immediately immersed herself into Parker's oeuvre and learned his recordings by ear. His advanced rhythm changes appealed to her especially.

In addition to chronicling her early life clearly and thoroughly one of the book's highlights is Johnson's vivid description of the black club scene of 1940s Detroit as a modern jazz nucleus. Johnson recounts the scene at clubs like the Club Sudan and The Blue Bird Inn, venues where musicians performed modern jazz that also provided spaces for jazz musicians to jam and experiment. The racial tensions between blacks and whites in Detroit, informed by dejure segregation and laws banning interracial relationships made Detroit a dangerous place for black performers and white admirers like Jordan and her friends to co-exist. The book depicts multiple incidents of police harassment and racist ire spewed toward Jordan and her black musician friends. These experiences, coupled with her outsider status as a child, led Jordan to identify strongly with African-Americans and to advocate for equality throughout her life. Despite these dangers Jordan became a regular in the jazz scene and formed a modern jazz vocal group with Leroy Mitchell and Skeeter Spight called Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean. To support herself Jordan worked as a typist by day and lived the jazz lifestyle by night. When Parker and his band performed at Jazz at the Philharmonic Jordan sang in his ear and he complimented her on her “million dollar ears.”

 Jordan moved to New York City in 1952 where she continued work as a typist for an ad agency, rented an apartment in Gramercy Park, and became a 52nd street fixture. She befriended Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus who led her to study with pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano. As her musicality expanded in these settings she developed a relationship with Parker's pianist Duke Jordan whom she eventually married. They relocated from Brooklyn to 26th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and she hosted popular “loft” parties that were jam sessions for jazz musicians. On the darker side her personal life was rife with setbacks: Duke was a heroin addict and philanderer who abandoned Jordan during her pregnancy and Charlie Parker died in 1955 which devastated her. She also relocated once again landing on West 25th street off 9th Avenue where she raised her biracial daughter Tracey alone. Though they both endured racial harassment in various forms her daughter was a source of light. In 1958 Jordan got a standing singing gig at Greenwich Village’s Page Three where she met musicians like Dave Frishberg and Mark Murphy, and gained her greatest exposure.  In the early '60s she began working at the DDB ad agency (where she remained until the 2000s) and recorded vocals on two albums including a seminal 1962 version of “You Are My Sunshine” with musician and theorist George Russell who became a friend and mentor.

He was instrumental in getting her signed to Blue Note where in 1962 she became the first vocalist to record for the label. Among the classic performances recorded on Portrait of Sheila two of the most important were her voice and bass versions of “Dat Dere” and “Baltimore Oriole” which conveyed her deft ability to tell stories personally and her proficient navigation of the sparse format. 

Johnson thoroughly chronicles how Jordan had longed to record in this style since she first performed this way in 1954 and again in 1956 with bassist Swallow, but it was deemed too unorthodox and risky commercially. 13 years later she revisited this approach on several songs on her second album, Confirmation, and eventually recorded her first bass and voice album, Sheila with bassist Arild Andersen in 1977. During the 1960s and 1970s Jordan was a well-respected performer and an in-demand guest musician who recorded with jazz and classical musicians.  During the '70s she formed fruitful musical relationships with bassists Harvie S and Steve Swallow, and pianist Steve Kuhn. Other opportunities included teaching a pioneering vocal jazz seminar at City College, which led to an opportunity to teach in Graz, Austria beginning in the late 1980s. Jordan worked to balance these opportunities with motherhood and her administrative work. She also recounts a series of abusive relationships with men and her struggles with alcohol and eventually cocaine. After going through rehab she wrote the poignant song “The Crossing” which was also the title of her 1984 album recorded for Blackhawk. After only recording three albums from 1962-1977 Jordan became a prolific recording artist serving as a leader or co-leader on 10 albums from 1979-89, five in the 1990s, and seven in the 2000s. In other words, she plans to perform and teach as long as she can. Jordan is not particularly fond of recording studios; hence the high proportion of live recordings where one can hear her listening to her fellow musicians and witness her daring way with a song and her charming rapport with audiences.

I first learned about Jordan in the early 2000s from a friend who had studied classical and jazz music. He recommended I listen to Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, and Jordan to expand my understanding of vocal jazz. I remember buying Portrait and finding her small voice unusual but was intrigued by what she did with it. She was spare and daring, reconfiguring songs I thought I knew and helping me hear them differently. She was a thrilling, unheralded genius in my estimation and everything I read about her affirmed this view. Soon I became nearly obsessed with locating her albums at used record stores; her recordings were rare, precious, and unusual.

 Despite the immense respect she has earned among musicians, educators, and critics, who routinely praise her depth as an interpreter and improviser, Jordan has never crossed into the pop stratosphere. Nor has she received a nomination in the Vocal Jazz Performance category at the Grammys. Perhaps this is best, though, because she has never contorted herself for approval and has remained committed to Parker's modernist aesthetic. She has been recognized by those in the know including the 2006 Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MACC) Lifetime Achievement Award, 2008 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for Lifetime of Service and a 2012 NEA Jazz Masters award. These honors, along with the rich life story Johnson tells in Jazz Child confirms Jordan’s status as a master performer and mentor within vocal jazz who speaks to greater truths about the discipline, passion, dues paying, and humanity essential for anyone aspiring to earn the title of vocal artist.